In December of 1970, my family moved from Travis AFB in California, to Eielson AFB, south of Fairbanks Alaska. My dad, an KC/RC-135 pilot, had received orders for New Jersey, but much to everybody's relief the orders were changed to Eielson.
I had asked my parents for a train set that year for Christmas, and my dad who went to Eielson early, built one that was ready for me when we arrived on the 17th of December. I was nine years old when we got there, and I had not really been interested in trains until then. My parents also bought me a couple of issues of Railroad Model Craftsman and Model Railroader magazines, and very soon trains joined airplanes as the objects of my affections.
Eielson was at the "northern" end of the Alaska RR, and the ARR would bring massive amounts of coal for the base power plant, and jet fuel for the planes, and occasionally a box car or two or dry goods for the base. I think the car count would be upwards of 80 or 90 cars a week. The Air Force had two Baldwin S-12 switchers, 1841 and 1842, that they used to switch the power plant and tank farm at the far end of the base.
When spring time rolled around, I would ride my bike down to the "train tracks" and watch the Baldwins do their thing. I would do this day after day after day. Soon the railroad crews took notice of me, and I was invited for a tour of the engine house, and was taken for a short ride on one the locomotives. I was hooked! Somehow, I guess due to my bugging the crew for more, my dad signed some sort of waiver, and I was allowed to ride in the cab, almost as often as I wanted.
All through the summer of 1971, I would ride my bike down to the train tracks, hang out with the crew, and go out on the switch jobs when the call came from the power plant or POL crew. Summer turned into winter, and I was reduced to a weekend only rider, forsaking Scooby Doo,and Bugs Bunny for rides on the Baldwins. I don't remember why but for some reason I stopped going to the engine house sometime in 1972, and stayed away until the summer of 1974, when I showed back up, and was allowed to start riding again. By then I was 13, and (I know this sounds very far fetched, but it is absolutely true) I was allowed to dismount moving locomotives to throw switches to help the crews. I was a typical obnoxious teenager at this time, and became somewhat of a burden to the train crew. My parents got wind of it, and my train riding days came to a screeching halt!
We moved to Nebraska, in December of 1974, and my dad retired to Longview, Texas in 1977. I will never forget my days at Eielson for many reasons: I came to relationship with Jesus at First Baptist Church of North Pole, I picked up my first TV camera in 1972 at Eielson. (I am media producer now) and I was a junior railroader, when other kids were playing with Hot Wheels and GI Joes (though I had both).
I only remember two names from my times at the engine house at Eielson. Ralph LaSalle, was the Trainmaster, (in his 60's then, I am sure he has long since passed away) and Barry Templeton. Barry was a ZZ Top looking motorcycle riding engineer who worked there in 1974. However, there were many others who put up with me. I turn 50 in four days, but I can say some of my fondest memories are riding the blue Baldwins at Eielson AFB.
P.S. I tell my wife that God will never let us be rich, because If I could afford it I would go the Alaska Museum of Transportation and Industry in Wasilla, and make them an offer they couldn't refuse and buy 1842 , and have it shipped here to Texas. A colossal waste of money.
© 2011 Don Walker